Archive for March, 2010

William Wordsworth, Child of Nature

Although we will look at several of Wordsworth’s short, lyrical poetry, to fully understand his creative genius and the influence he has had on poets all the way up until today, you really should read his longer poems, such as Ode: Intimations of Mortality and The Prelude. Wordsworth creates what I would call a cartography of memory, the dynamics by which selfhood depends upon a reconciliation of the past, the present and the future. He uses his long poems to explore his individual emotional development, and to try to understand his self-hood in the context of time.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”The following are questions aimed to provoke you into reading the poem closely.

1. Wordsworth uses a lot of figurative language: poetic devices meant to twist the usual meaning of words, such as metaphor, simile, personification, etc. Scan through the poem, and check off instances in which you find Wordsworth using language figuratively.

2. Ponder the first two lines of the poem, in which Wordsworth forms as simile: “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills.” How does the simile work? What does the poet suggest about his state of mind in that he wanders lonely like a cloud? Recall how we used Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to interpret the symbolism. Do the same here by thinking of the associations you can make to “cloud,” “floats,” etc.

3. What is significant about the “daffodils” the poet “wanders” upon? What figurative language does Wordsworth use when he describes the daffodils with such terms as “dancing,” “host,” “crowd”? What images do the daffodils conjure in your mind? What metaphor do you think Wordsworth forms with the vision of the stretch of daffodils?

4. Why do you think the poet comapres the daffodils to the stars and milky way? How does the simile in lines 7 – 8 emphasize and increase the importance of the daffodils?

5. After seeing the daffodils, why do you think the poet says, “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought”?

6. How is the final stanza of the poem very different from the preceding stanzas? Consider the poet’s location in line 1, and his location in line 19. What does the movement between the two locations in the poem say about the poet’s state of mind?

7. How has the vision of the daffodils affected the poet? Based upon the poet’s response to the daffodils by the end of the poem, what do you think they symbolize? Or think of it this way: what do the daffodils represent to the poet other than their amazing sight on his sojourn into nature?

“My Heart Leaps Up.”

This is a deceivingly simple poem. It is actually quite complex. What does the poet mean when he claims his “heart leaps up” when he sees “a rainbow’? Does it strike you as a bit dippy at first?  When in our life may the sight of a rainbow have made us “leap up”?  Do we “leap up” when we see a rainbow in the sky now?  What may have happened to our experience of seeing a rainbow in the intervening years of our life?

Look at line 3 -5. Each line begins with “So.” What effect does this have? What does each line represent? Look closely at the grammar and tense of each line.

How do you interpret the startling exclamation of line 6, “Or let me die!” Do you think that this is hyperbole (a poetic device in which a poet purposefully exaggerates, often for rhetorical reasons), or do you think Wordsworth cries out with sincerity?

How do you interpret the fairly cryptic line, “The Child is father of the Man”? What does this mean to you outside of the poem, and what does it mean in the context of the poem? If any of you have read King Lear, you may recall Edgar’s mysterious line concerning Lear, “He childed as I fathered.”

Finally, how do the final two lines create both the conclusion and the “frame” around the poem?  Think carefully about the words “wish,” “bound,” and the phrase, “natural piety.” In fact, look the word “bound” up in the dictionary.

Now, step back from the poem, and think about the rainbow once again. What does the rainbow symbolize?  (Again, think of all the things you can associate with a rainbow). Finally, what does the rainbow allude to. (Allusion is another figurative device in which a poet / author refers to another piece of literature.)

I have seen these types of daffodil fields in England, and they are quite spectacular.
I have seen these types of daffodil fields in England, and they are quite spectacular.

March 25, 2010 at 8:14 pm 2 comments

Colerdige: the Visionary Poet

Brief but Incredible Career

Like those music stars of the 1960s who went down the tubes or killed themselves by the early 1970s, Coleridge came on the scene in the late 1700s, wrote a handful of brilliant poems and some of the most influential literary criticism in British history, and then broke down completely from drug addiction by 1809.

As we discussed, Coleridge partnered with Wordsworth to write the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballds in 1798. While Wordsworth dealt with rustic life (the natural), Coleridge dealt with dreams and visions (the supernatural). His biggest contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is simply one of the greatest romantic poems, if not one of the top twenty best in British history. When the collection of poems first came out, most audiences and critics thought the poem was a confusing mess. Indeed, the poem is brilliant because it seems to make sense as a narrative while it also seems to defy interpretation at the same time.

Coleridge wrote most of his poems in spells of intense labor. He was never a very disciplined poet, but perhaps in a true romantic vein, he would come up with a poem as if he had gone into a trance.

Coleridge and Drug Addiction.

Because of a childhood illness, Coleridge suffered from terrible back pain into his adult life. The medical prescription at the time was laudanum, which is opium dissolved in alcohol. Basically, morphine with a grain alcohol chaser! He quickly became addicted to the drug. Although he admits that the high would inspire much of is writing, by the early 1800s, he also began to admit that the drug was ruining both his creativity and his life. He took a two year retreat to Malta to try to recover, but while he was gone, his addiction only grew worse, and by the time he returned to England in 1806, he was pretty much physically and mentally destroyed. “Dejection: an Ode,” one of his later poems, expresses the despair of drug addiction.

It will always remain one of the most tantalizing hypothetical questions in British literature: what if Coleridge had been able to produce poetry and prose for the duration of his life instead of the six or seven years before drugs destroyed him? Needless to say, the handful of poems he left behind, combined with his magnum opus, Literary Biography, has made him one of the most central of romantic poets.

Coleridge the Intellectual

Of all the romantics, Coleridge was the most cerebral and the most Christian. He had an intense intellectual curiosity. In the late 1700s, Coleridge studied Kant and post-Kantian German philosophy atthe University of Gottingen. These studies influenced his own literary studies and criticism, which he brought to his lengthy Biographia Literari. This long piece of literary criticism and philosophy is at one moment brilliant, at others baffling, garbled and sometimes embarrassing. The brilliant moments (which are included in your book) still inspires many of our ideas concerning symbolism and the Imagination in literary criticism today. A great deal of the book, however, is almost unreadable, as it is evident that he wrote large portions of it stoned. He draws a great deal from German and French philosophy and theology, and at times he unabashedly steals the ideas of others.

Coleridge on the Central Power of the Imagination.

Central to Coleridge’s literary criticism is his romantic concepts concering the Imagination. Like the romantics to follow, Coleridge placed the role of the Imagination in a dominant position. He argued that the Imagination functions like a divine spark that urges one on to create. Further, the Imagination is bound to God’s creative act. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would find romantic inspiration from Coleridge several decades later, the natural world around us is like a big canvas of God’s creation. Essentially, God is a great artist, and when we experience the world around us, His creation inspires the artist to create a representation of it.

But for Coleridge, making a representation of God’s creation is not

This is a wonderful book written by Dorthy Sayers in the 1920s in which she develops a literary criticism based upon the notion that artists and poets are like co-creators of Gods great and ongoing creation. It is a very interesting approach toward literary interpretation by basing reading and meaning upon Christian theology.
This is a wonderful book written by Dorthy Sayers in the 1920s in which she develops a literary criticism based upon the notion that artists and poets are like co-creators of God’s great and ongoing creation. It is a very interesting approach toward literary interpretation by basing reading and meaning upon Christian theology.

just an act of imitation. Because we have an Imagination that can take in and break up our experience in the world as a means to create a personal expression, we are like co-creators, co-authors, in God’s divine and infinite creative act. Coleridge, therefore, inspires a great deal of the romantic notion that poets and artists are “gifted,” vested with a “vision,” and whose creations turn them into a “genius.”

March 25, 2010 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake: a Visionary.

No poet of all the poets we will explore was quite as enigmatic, visionary and, well, far-out as William Blake. Although he ranks as one of the most important and influential of all romantic poets, he had very little (if any) contact with romantic poetry or philosophy. In fact, from a very early age, Blake felt that he had a “Divine Vision,” a spiritual calling which meant for him a life of isolation in which to pursue poetry and art. Throughout most of his life, his brilliant poetry and illustrations gained little, if any, public recognition, and he lived in loneliness and abject poverty. He is, in many respects, one of the first British individuals to choose writing and art as a profession, and, therefore, one of the first stereotypical “starving artists,” someone who sacrifices a social and material life for the sequestered life of creation.

Blake’s Creation of a Romantic Christian Epic.

Particularly in his later career, Blake’s poetry grows in tremendous length as he creates phantasmagorical epics in which he creates a byzantine and fantastic world that allegorizes Christianity, creating poetic narratives out of the Fall of Man, the Passion story, the struggle between good and evil. He follows in the shadow of his precursor, John Milton and Paradise Lost, the one great British Christian epic poem that you will have to suffer through some day if you are an English major. Blake, however, suffuses the Christian narrative with his own wild, visionary, allegorical and, quite often, bizarre poetry.

Blake as an Artist.

As you can see by my inclusion of some of his illustrations, no less important than his poetry was Blake’s art. In fact, the illustrations and prints that he created for all of his volumes of poetry are as influential on romanticism (if not more so) than his poetry itself. He created wild, swirling illustrations of angels, devils, scenes from the Bible and brilliantly colorful prints showing scenes form his own poems. These are truly incredible pieces of art. Blake’s poetry is meant to be read with their accompanying illustrations. Thankfully, your anthology includes a few of the illustrations along with the poems.

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

The short poems you have read are from his two collections of poems, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience. Both books are companion pieces. Blake writes the poems in the former from the point of view of childlike innocense, and generally represent both a perspective that has not gained knowledge and experience concerning evil, i.e., poems that derive from experience before the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Blake writes poems in the latter from the point of view of adult experience in the world, or, more aptly, adulterated experience, the perspective from human experience with sin, i.e, poems that represent experience after the Fall of Man and when sin becomes wrapped up in life.

Generally, each poem in each collection has its analog in its opposite. In other words, a poem from the Songs of Innocense has its companion poem in the Songs of Experience. The most clear and famous example of this poetic dichotamy is “The Lamb” from Innocense, and “The Tyger” from Experience. Read the two side by side. Notice how the first mirrors a sort of nursery-rhyme voice of a child (of course, really, an adult creating the world as it might be seen by the child). “The Lamb” explores the Christian mystery of God’s unconditional love evidenced through Christ with complete and simple closure. All of the poems questions in stanza one are answered with Christian but child-like affirmation in the second stanza. “The Tyger,” from Experience, however, is a comparatively dark and terrifying experience. In contrast to the innocent cuddliness of the Lamb, and the sweet question-answer between the child and the lamb, the Tyger depicts a fiery, powerful and dangerous creature. Notice the evident imagery of fire, darkness and hell. Importantly, whereas “The Lamb” answers all of the questions posed, “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions. Of course, a majority of the theological questions posed in the poem do not have answers.

March 25, 2010 at 8:08 pm Leave a comment

Questions for Reading: Early Romanticism

Here are some questions that can guide you in reading William Blake, William Wordsworth and Robert Burns. You can respond to one or more in your journal, if you want. And you can use them to keep running ideas for possible paper topics.

William Blake.

1. How does Blake create contrasting experiences in the two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”?  What type of experience does each poem explore? How does Christian inquiry in “The Tyger” differ greatly from the Christian inquiries of “The Lamb”?  What might the lamb symbolize; accordingly, what might the “tyger” represent? Why do you think that “The Tyger” consists entirely of a series of questions?

2. How do the two “The Chimney Sweeper” poems contrast each other? Keep in  mind that child labor was an atrocity in eighteenth century London, particularly chimney sweeping. Children as young as three or four years old were literally “sold” by their parents into indentured servitude for the chimney sweeping industry because they were small and nimble enough to fit down the chimney. It was literally a life in hell for these children: and Blake, in both poems, uses the bowels of the chimney into which children had to descend as images of hell. The poem in The Songs of Innocence is particularly complex, even though Blake writes it like a children’s story. Look closely at both the voice in the poem and the narrative movement. Consider the dramatic situation. Although Blake depicts deeper religious issues via a wide-eyed childlike wonderment, what doctrines of Christian hope does Blake portray?

3. I put several of Blake’s illustrations that he did for the Songs of Innocence and Experience in the posting on Blake. How would you describe these illustrations?  Why might they be both fitting to and influential on romanticism?  How do the illustrations work with the poetry?

Robert Burns

1. What do you make of Burns’ style? the way in which he uses language?  the words themselves?  What do you think he is up to?  If one wanted to imitate a “dialect” in a poem today, what type of words and language do you think one could use?  Think of various different dialects, colloquialisms and slang in our country, like southern accents, Yankee slang, urban lingo, etc.

2. Describe the dramatic situation in “To a Mouse.” What “tragic” event occurs?  How does the farmer who caused the tragic event respond to it? The poet offers a fairly long subtitle to the poem. Why is it really important that the action in the poem takes place in November?  Why would the subject matter of the poem be less urgent if it were, say, June.

3. Although “To a Mouse” comes across as a folksy poem depicting a pretty trivial scenario, Burns cleverly allows deep and poignant issues to manifest that have been treated to even epic extents in poetry since the ancient Greeks. Look at the following  passage from the poem, and think about enduring life-themes it expresses.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ paiin

For promis’d joy!

4. “A Red, Red Rose” is really the lyrics to a song. Do you think it works on its own as a poem without the music? Do you feel that the poem holds up as a poem? Or do you think it is a bit mawkish, Hallmarky, hokey? If the poem is sappy, do you think that Burns is being intentionally so?  Does the sap–the cheesy-factor–veil something deeper?  Like the poem, “To a Mouse,” consider the dramatic situation of the poem.  What is happening or what may be about to happen?

March 25, 2010 at 8:06 pm Leave a comment

ROBERT BURNS

Robert Burns

1. What do you make of Burns’ style? the way in which he uses language?  the words themselves?  What do you think he is up to?  If one wanted to imitate a “dialect” in a poem today, what type of words and language do you think one could use?  Think of various different dialects, colloquialisms and slang in our country, like southern accents, Yankee slang, urban lingo, etc.

2. Describe the dramatic situation in “To a Mouse.” What “tragic” event occurs?  How does the farmer who caused the tragic event respond to it? The poet offers a fairly long subtitle to the poem. Why is it really important that the action in the poem takes place in November?  Why would the subject matter of the poem be less urgent if it were, say, June.

3. Although “To a Mouse” comes across as a folksy poem depicting a pretty trivial scenario, Burns cleverly allows deep and poignant issues to manifest that have been treated to even epic extents in poetry since the ancient Greeks. Look at the following  passage from the poem, and think about enduring life-themes it expresses.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ paiin

For promis’d joy!

4. “A Red, Red Rose” is really the lyrics to a song. Do you think it works on its own as a poem without the music? Do you feel that the poem holds up as a poem? Or do you think it is a bit mawkish, Hallmarky, hokey? If the poem is sappy, do you think that Burns is being intentionally so?  Does the sap–the cheesy-factor–veil something deeper?  Like the poem, “To a Mouse,” consider the dramatic situation of the poem.  What is happening or what may be about to happ

March 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment

THE ROOTS AND BIRTH OF ROMANTICISM

A picutre of books, for no particular reason.

THE DEVELOPMENT TOWARD ROMANTICISM.

In order to understand the sea-change that “romanticism” brought to literature in the late 1700s, one must have some understanding of the literary history that came before the romantics.

In a cursory manner, English literature can be divided up into the following periods.

500 – circa 900:     Old English / Anglo-Saxon.

900 – mid-1400s:             Medieval.

1400 – 1660:               Renaissance.

1660 – 1790:               Enlightenment / Age of Reason.

1790 – 1850:               Romanticism (Including transcendentalism in America).

1850 – 1900:               Victorian / Realism.

1900 – 1945:               Modernism.

1945 – Now:               Post-modernism.

The dates are fairly rough, but as you can see, Romanticism falls after the Enlightenment and just before what we know as “modern” literature. Like most “movements” in literature, Romanticism was a reaction to the movement that came before it, the Enlightenment. Yet, Romanticism was far more of a sudden, revolutionary break with the past than had occurred previously in the more protracted and gradual transitions between medievalism and the renaissance.

The Years Leading up to the Enlightenment.

Throughout the 1500s and early 1600s, along with great advancements in art, writing and thinking (the “humanism” associated with the renaissance), England also suffered bitter and bloody struggles and civil war over religious and political issues. The violence culminated when the Puritans rose up against the monarchy, and beheaded King Charles I in 1630. For two decades, England was for the first and only time a Republic, headed by a Puritan parliament. Bur the republic failed, and in 1660, Charles II returned to England from exile and restored monarchy to England.

For almost two decades, England was not a monarchy, but a republic, headed by Oliver Cromwell and parliament.

After such a period of strife and war that brought not just England but most of Europe to the brink of collapse, people wanted to create an ordered and decorous civilization. Philosophy and literature began to quickly share a “worldview” that valued Reason over Passion as a means to maintain an ordered world.

Enlightenment – The Age of Reason.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, Europe maintained a worldview in which Reason must remain the chief faculty over Passion. Reason, particularly in the 1700s, refers to rational thought, clear thinking, order, decorum. Literature and philosophy emphasized civilization and a cohesive society as opposed to individual interest; Passion refers to personal emotions, dreams, desires, fantasy, carnality, the irrational and, as we will see, the unconscious.

Particularly with rapidly growing scientific thought in the 1700s, the Enlightenment emphasized a literature of restraint, order, and classicism. Most poets followed the “rules” of ancient poets, such as Horace. Imitating and making the best of Tradition was valued over poetic inventiveness.

With his emphasis upon clear, practical thinking and writing, and his dedication to invention, Benjamin Franklin was the epitome of Enlightenment in America in the 1700s.

As modern Americans living in 2009, it is hard for us to wrap our mind around a vision toward poetry in which emotions and the Imagination are both suspect and dangerous. Imaginative writing in the Enlightenment was meant to express general and abstract truths concerning the world in an ordered fashion—hence, almost all poetry for over two centuries was written in the very organized structure of the Heroic Couplet to emphasize decorum and restraint.

Role of the Poet in the Enlightenment.

The poet was not considered an individual writing about personal feelings detached from the world, but a sort of custodian of civilization, writing about general truths concerning society as a whole. (Most authors shared a vision in which the writer sequestered away from the world signified madness.) Therefore, there was an emphasis in poetry upon politics, social issues, religion—anything that dealt with and promoted civilization as a whole while ridiculing those things that could damage an ordered world: personal feelings, dreams, desires, irrational or unbalanced thinking.

In a sense, the emphasis on logic and rationality was a means to both restrain and repress any of those human impulses that could threaten to bring about the collapse of civilization that had been such a possibility in the previous century.

Transition to Romanticism: 1750s – 1790s.

The literature of the late 1700s began to show both a loosening of the order and restraint of the written form, and a growing “sentimental” strain in writing.

Certain Enlightenment authors, like Edmund Burke in his essay on the Sublime, began to question the limits of rational thought. What does Reason fail to address? becomes a prevalent question.

Additionally, poets began to explore a more sentimental side to life, addressing such issues as death or lost love, emotions that the restraint of rational thought tends to avoid. However, most poets before 1790 wrote about emotion as a “civilized” experience, writing pieces that might “shed a gentlemanly tear,” containing feelings within a structured, decorous framework.

Some poets, like Robert Burns, begin to explore different poetic and imaginative forms that breaks up the monotony and artifice of such rational structures as Heroic Verse.

Romanticism.

In some ways, the explosion of a literary attitude and philosophy focusing upon feeling and expression seems like a logical act of rebellion against the repressive dominance of logic and rationality.

In particular, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, two university educated young men, teamed together and wrote a collection of poems in 1798, Lyrical Ballds, that, as an experiment in a new, emotional, personal and visionary form of expression. In a daring group of poems, they suggested a new way of writing, in which poetry is not a “mirror” of an objective world, but the record of a poet’s subjective mind constructing personal impressions of that world.

Wordsworth and Coleridge divided the poems between themselves into two different categories: poems about nature and poems about dreams/imagination.

Wordsworth tackled poetry about nature. Spending several years studying mathematics and science at Cambridge, he felt a personal disgust toward the tedium of rational thought. After college, he sort-of dropped out of society and spent a few years hiking around England, and coming to a personal awareness of nature and the ways in which the natural world works as a conduit to an understanding of selfhood.

In contrast to Enlightenment poets, Wordsworth rejected the strict meter of the poetic verse—particularly Heroic Verse—and the use of inflated and abstract diction. His poems about nature reflected his personal, individual experience within the natural world, creating a private world of subjectivity for the reader to view. Additionally, instead of depicting nature in the Enlightenment manner as ordered, cultivated, dominated by human hands, he portrayed nature in its pure, often wild and “natural” state.

As his poetry develops, nature and the poet’s mind become analogous to an interior, private, often unruly and irrational state, a landscape in which the poet attempts to gain self-knowledge. But Wordsworth’s self-knowledge does not entail the Enlightenment notion of “how to I understand who I am in the context of a social world, so that I can become integral and effective member of society.” Wordsworth’s exploration of the self develops into the modern notion of, “Who am I as a person, my identity, my problems, my hopes, dreams, etc.” In many ways, Wordsworth develops an early notion of art serving as emotional and psychic therapy.

Coleridge tackled poetry about dreams, visions, and the glories and dangers of the imagination. His poems do not explore an objective, outside world that, in an Enlightenment fashion, the human can rationalize and represent, like a “mirror held up to nature.” Instead, he explores an interior, irrational, often nightmarish dream world—the unconscious, if you will—a plane of experience that, in many ways, cannot be rationalized. Poems, such as “Kublah Kahn,” explore a vision and dream state, almost completely detached from a recognizable world. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner depicts a supernatural narrative, resembling traditional epic poetry, yet leaving the meaning almost hopelessly ambiguous.

His work in Lyrical Ballads will develop into his more intellectual and philosophical explorations concerning the centrality of the Imagination in the formation of poetry and knowledge in his massive Biographia Literari, much of which has some of the greatest influence on modern literary thinking. For Coleridge, the Imagination, which had been considered suspect and dangerous in previous centuries, becomes the source of all knowledge and inspiration. Instead of coming to meaning and understanding of the world through objective, rational thought, Coleridge incepts the notion that the individual arrives at meaning and understanding through one’s imagination and the processes of imaginative thinking.

Oppositions between Enlightenment and Romanticism.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge set up the helpful (but sometimes too simple) contrasts between literature of the 1600 – 1700s and Romanticism. The oppositions tend to run as follows.

ENLIGHTENMENT ROMANTIC

Reason                                                            Passion

Thought                                                         Feeling

Rationality                                                   Irrationality

Decorum                                                       Experimentation

Order                                                              Expressive

Nature as ordered.                                   Nature as wild.

Civilization / Society                              The individual

Self                                                                  Self as concerns one’s own selfhood.

Objective                                                     Subjective

Scientific                                                     Artistic

Impersonal                                                Personal.

March 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

INTRODUCTION TO ROMANTICISM

Romanticism applies to a fervent period in literature in England and American that ran between 1790 and the mid 1800s–although, as we will see, romanticism continues in many various guises all the way up until today. In fact, romantic philosophy informs who we are as modern Americans in ways you may not even be conscious of.

The term romanticism has been defined by so many scholars and poets in so many different ways that the word often loses meaning. For our purposes, however, we can define it as a particularly new, somewhat experimental and more modern approach toward poetry and prose that evolved like a storm in England in the late 1700s and then influenced the great Transcendentalist authors in America in the early to mid 1800s.

Romanticism was a literary movement that rebelled against the ideologies of classicism, order, reason and coherence that dominated literature from the mid-1600s and throughout the Enlightenment in the 1700s. The Enlightenment (of the Age of Reason) valued Reason over Passion. This meant that clear-thinking, logic, empiricism, moderation in thought and a focus on human centered activities and their bearing upon society was made to take center stage (and to suppress) the imaginative, dreams, desires, individual hopes and problems, the exploration of the self and mysteries.

By the 1790s, English and French writers and philosophers began to rebel against Age of Reason precepts, arguing that it denied the more self-oriented, irrational, mysterious and emotional aspects of existence. Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, began to subvert the dichotomy between Reason / Passion, and (for the first time in literary history), writers places Passion above Reason. By making Passion paramount, poets and authors explored the human self as an individual, emotions, dreams, the irrational and the sublime. Many of them, like Coleridge, believed whole-heartedly that the route to Reason and Intellect went through the Passions. One reaches knowledge by experiencing emotions, intuition and sensory experience, not the other way around.

The result of Romanticism is the birth, in a sense, of modern literature as we know it: a literature of the self, the individual, emotions, of mysteries, and dreams. Consequently, romanticism accounts for our modern American emphasis upon the individual, upon the rights of privacy, the valor of making one’s dreams come true, etc.

To try to simply spell out the difference between Romanticism, and the philosophy toward poetry and prose that prevailed before 1790, I will give an example of how a typical person from each period would define a poem. Asked to define a poem today, and most of us would immediately associate poetry with the poet’s feelings. Before 1790, the same question would have elicited a very different response: poetry is a form of art that represents general truths concerning the human being in a social or political world, and the function of civilization.

March 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment